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Starting a New Self-Help Group

The following guidelines are based on the experiences of the American & N.J. Self-Help Clearinghouses. While there is no one recipe for starting a group in your community (different national groups rely on different models), we have listed a few ideas you may find helpful.

Don't Re-invent the Wheel

Chances are that a group focused on your particular concern already exists. If you have a local self-help clearinghouse serving your area, call to confirm that there isn't already a group in you area. Check the database here. If you find an existing national group, contact them and ask for any "how-to" guide or starter packet they may have. Ask about group leaders nearest to you and consider calling them. If you are contacting a model group for your issue, ask if they might send you sample material they have used (flyer, press releases, etc.). If there is a local self-help clearinghouse in your area, also determine from them what assistance they can provide to you in developing your group. If you can, consider attending a meeting of one or two other local self-help groups that may be somewhat somewhat similar to the group you are starting, simply to get a feel for how they operate, then borrow what you consider their best techniques to use in your own group. Before going to any such group, call first and ask if you may attend.

Think "Mutual-Help" From the Start

You do not have to start a group by yourself. There are others who share your problem.

Find a few others who share your interest by circulating a flyer or letter that specifically cites how if one is interested in "joining with others to help start" such a group, they can contact you. Include your first name, phone number, and any other relevant information. Make copies and post them at places you feel are appropriate, e.g., library, community center, clinic, or post office. Mail copies to key people whom you think would know others like yourself. You can also ask if the notice might be published in your local church bulletin and newspaper.

When, hopefully, you receive a response, discuss with the caller what their interests are and what you would like the group to do. Ask if they would be willing to share the responsibilities of organizing a group for a specific period of time. By involving several people in the initial work of the first meeting, they will model for newcomers what your self-help mutual aid group is all about: a cooperative effort.

Also, consider obtaining the assistance of any professionals who may be sensitive to your needs and willing to assist you in your efforts. Physicians, clergy, and social workers may be helpful in various ways, from providing meeting space to locating needed resources.

Find a Suitable Meeting Place and Time

Try to obtain free meeting space at a local church, library, community center, hospital, or social service agency. Chairs should be arranged in a circle and avoid a lecture set-up.

If you anticipate a small group and feel comfortable with the idea, consider initial meetings in members' homes. Also, try and set a convenient time for people to remember the meeting, e.g., the first Tuesday of the month.

Publicize and Run your First Public Meeting

To reach potential members, consider where they might go to seek help.
Would they be seen by particular professionals or agencies? If the answer is yes, try contacting these professionals. Posting announcements in the community calendar section of a local newspaper, library or community center can be especially helpful. The key is to get the word out.

The first meeting should be arranged so that there will be ample time for you and other core group members to describe your interest and work, while allowing others the opportunity to share their view of how they would like to see the group function. Identify common needs the group can address. Although you do not want to overload you new arrivals with information, you do want to stress the seriousness of you intent and the necessity of their participation. Make plans for the next meeting and consider having an opportunity for people to talk and socialize informally after the meeting.

Future Meetings

For future meetings consider the following:

  • Purpose: Establish the purpose of the group. Is the purpose clear? Groups often focus upon providing emotional support, practical information, education, and sometimes advocacy. Also determine any basic guidelines your group will have for meetings (to possibly ensure that group discussions are confidential, non-judgmental, and informative.

  • Membership: Who can attend meetings and who cannot? Do you want membership limited to those with the problem? Will there be membership dues? If so, how much?

  • Meeting Format: How will the meeting be structured? How much time will be devoted to business affairs, discussion time, planning future meetings, and socializing? What topics will be selected? Can guest speakers be invited? If the group grows too large, consider breaking down into smaller sub-groups of 7 to 12.

  • Roles and Responsibilities: Continue to share and delegate the work and responsibilities in the group. Who will be the phone contact for the group? Do you want officers? Consider additional roles members can play in making the group work. In asking for volunteers, it is sometimes easier to first ask the group what specific tasks they think would be helpful.

  • Phone Network: Many groups encourage the exchange of telephone numbers or an internal phone list to provide help to members between meetings. Ask your membership if they would like this arrangement.

  • Use of Professionals: Consider using professionals as advisors, consultants, or speakers to your groups, and as sources of continued referrals and information.

  • Projects: Always begin with small projects, then work your way up to more difficult tasks.

Final Thoughts

  • Stay in touch with the needs of your members. Periodically ask new members about their needs and what they think both they and the group can do to meet them. Similarly, be sure to avoid the pitfall of core group members possibly forming a clique.

  • Expect your group to experience "ups and downs" in terms of attendance and enthusiasm. It's natural and should be expected. You may want to consider joining or forming an informal coalition of association of leaders from the same or similar groups, for your own periodic mutual support and the sharing of program ideas and successes.

While you can obtain the best "how-to" literature from existing self-help groups, as well as from any local self-help clearinghouse, there are other suggestions provided (to include those for professionals seeking to help initiate the process) in the Self-Help Sourcebook on pages 195 to 216.

Copyright American Self-Help Clearinghouse, 1993-2007
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